Touko Laaksonen (8 May 1920 – 7 November 1991), best known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, was a Finnish artist notable for his stylized homoerotic fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. He has been called the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images” by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade.
Over the course of four decades, he produced some 3500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits with tight or partially removed clothing.
Early life and education
Laaksonen was born and raised by a middle-class family in Kaarina, a town in southwestern Finland, near the city of Turku. Both of his parents were schoolteachers who taught at the grammar school that served Kaarina. The family lived in the school building which had living quarters attached.
He studied in Turku and in 1939, at the age of 19, he moved to Helsinki to study advertising. In his spare time he also started drawing erotic images for his own pleasure. He first kept his drawings hidden, but then destroyed them “at least by the time I went to serve the army.” His drawings were based on images of masculine laborers he had seen from an early age. The country soon became embroiled in the Winter War with the USSR, and then became formally involved in World War II. He was conscripted in February 1940 into the Finnish Army. He served as an anti-aircraft officer, holding the rank of second lieutenant. He later attributed his fetishistic interest in uniformed men to encounters with men in army uniform, especially soldiers of the German Wehrmacht serving in Finland at that time. “In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!” After the war, in 1945, he returned to studies.
Laaksonen’s artwork of this period compared to later works is considered more romantic and softer with “gentle-featured shapes and forms.” The men featured were middle class, as opposed to the sailors, bikers, lumberjacks, construction workers, and other members of stereotypically hypermasculine working class groups that feature in his later work. Another key difference is the lack of dramatic compositions, self-assertive poses, muscular bodies and “detached exotic settings” that his later work embodied.
In 1956 Laaksonen submitted drawings to the influential American magazine Physique Pictorial which premiered the images in the Spring 1957 issue under the pseudonym Tom, as it resembled his given name Touko; he was also featured as the cover artist with an illustration of two log drivers at work. The editor of the magazine credited them to Tom of Finland. The cover image included a third workingman in the background watching the two log drivers. Pulled from Finnish mythology of lumberjacks representing strong masculinity, Laaksonen emphasized and privileged “homoerotic potentiality […] relocating it in a gay context”, a strategy repeated throughout his career.
The post-World War II era saw the rise of the biker culture as rejecting “the organization and normalization of life after the war, with its conformist, settled lifestyle.” Biker subculture was both marginal and oppositional and provided postwar gay men with a stylized masculinity that included rebelliousness and danger which were absent from dominant gay stereotypes. In mainstream culture the strongest image of gay men was generally the effeminate sissy as seen in vaudeville and films going back to the first years of the industry. Laaksonen was influenced by images of bikers as well as artwork of George Quaintance and Etienne, among others, that he cited as his precursors; they were “disseminated to gay readership through homoerotic physique magazines” starting in 1950. Laaksonen’s drawings of bikers and leathermen capitalized on the leather and denim outfits which differentiated those men from mainstream culture and suggested they were untamed, physical, and self-empowered. This is contrasted with the mainstream, medical and psychological sad and sensitive young gay man who is passive. Laaksonen’s drawings of this time “can be seen as consolidating an array of factors, styles and discourses already existing in the 1950s gay subcultures,” this may have led to them being widely distributed and popularized in gay culture.
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